Hoi An: Food And Clothing

By

Leonard Zwelling

It’s a day on our own in the Old City of Hoi An. That means only two things are on tap: food and clothing.

The market in Hoi An, like the Shuk in Jerusalem, is stand after stand of vegetables, fruits, seafood and meat. It’s all fresh. You can tell. It doesn’t smell at all. The chicken, beef and pork are carved into its various component parts for sale and consumption, probably that evening. The best fish is gone at 4 AM so we are seeing the left overs to some extent. It’s still impressive from the 18-inch long squid to the rows of red snapper and pails of shrimp of all sizes.

We stop at a small vendor selling kitchen wares where we all buy the special knives (in checked luggage only, please) that both cut and scrape fruit and vegetables and are widely used in Vietnamese cooking, as we would learn later as the chef guiding us through the market will be teaching us how to cook—up river.

Walking through the rain under umbrellas we make for the Thu Bon River and a waiting small boat. We crawl in–don’t bump your head—and motor up river to a small clearing on the left bank. We dock and crawl out into the waiting arms of the staff of the Red Bridge Inn, the first of the Vietnamese cooking schools in Hoi An. Here we assemble for a lesson in Vietnamese cuisine that entails much chopping, fast cooking, and the construction of pancakes and spring rolls using rice paper, some of which we actually make using a rice liquid mixture spread across the wide mouth of steaming water with a cotton clothe above. A ladle of white rice liquid is spread across the cloth and the steam cooks it into a piece of moldable rice paper to be filled with vegetables and cooked meat. It’s a Vietnamese taco and delicious.

Along with the dishes we are supposed to fabricate a decorative tomato by peeling the skin in one long skein using a paring knife and making a fan out of a piece of cucumber. None of us does a particularly good job reproducing the artistry of the chef instructor. No matter. The lunch is delicious ending, like all Vietnamese meals, with fresh fruit. No pastry.

We motor back downstream and head to Yaly, the tailor shop where three of the four of us (not I) had clothing made the day before. It was time for a first fitting. The space is packed with tourists getting suits, dresses and blouses made from the bolts of material that adorn the walls from ceiling to floor. Small Vietnamese women that double as fitters and salespeople run around among the crowds developing brief relationships on which to base a sale of a suit or dress.

An impossibly tall Australian woman is going through outfit after outfit she had made. She is so tall that I really doubt she would be able to buy any clothes off a rack. She’s at least 6’ 8” in height. A group of young girls get the tour of the place as Genie and our cousins finish up the multiple fittings that will lead to delivered clothes at the hotel that evening.

This is the ritual of Hoi An. You eat and you get fitted for clothing hoping what you had made still fits after dinner.

The next morning we head for the airport in Da Nang for our noon flight to Ho Chi Minh City, which even the natives refer to as Saigon. We pass the ageing and empty husks of the military airbase that housed countless helicopters fifty years ago and now is the site of high rise buildings. There are two golf courses on the way from Hoi An to Da Nang. This is a different Viet Nam than greeted our troops in the 1960’s.

But it is also a different Viet Nam than the one I expected. It is a hustling, bustling city with minions of motor scooters and businesses. It does not look like an oppressed Communist nation. But, of course, they won and now they are using what we taught them to advance their society. Average income is still only about $2100, but I think much of Viet Nam looks to be employed, many in the service sector. This is a growing country. Employing as many as possible is what keeps the Communist government in power.

If Germany and Japan thrived after losing a war to the United States, imagine what will happen in the country that won one.

Leonard Zwelling